If there is one piece of writing advice out of all the writing advice that has ever been given that I could consider generic, it would be Show don’t Tell. Yeah, I hear you all. The people who spout this are pretty much a dime a dozen when it comes to writing advice (And now I’ve shamelessly added myself to their ranks) but really, what does it mean with novels?
I mean, everyone that has ever tried to sit down and write anything has at least a basic understanding of what this means. Usually it’s something along the lines of: ‘A character should not just flat-out say that they are angry, they should perform an action that let’s the audience know’ or ‘The villain should not just tell the heroes his whole plan, he should actually do it first’
And this kind of advice is simple to understand in the context of visual mediums. In a video game it’s best to have the player control the character during a crucial story moment than just bombard them with cutscenes, in movies the script should make the characters do things that go with how they would act, and in a painting there’s always going to be a form of “Showing”. But this philosophy doesn’t translate as perfectly when we seek to transplant it into the literary medium. Let’s run some tests first.
Maybe you want the reader to interact with the story in the same way as a video game? Well, unless you’re making a choose your own adventure book, that’s impossible to mimic in a novel. Maybe you want your characters to pop up in front of the readers and act scenes out? Oh wait, your characters are literally words floating around pages! Oh, you want to go the painting route? Too bad. Not even the purpliest of purple prose could paint a picture as well as an actual…you know, painting.
There is a very troublesome conundrum that arises when we apply this bit of advice into the literary world. And it isn’t a barrier that can easily be removed either, it has to do
with the core of writing in general. What is this you ask? In reality, it’s a no-brainer.
Books are literally centered on telling you what’s going on rather than showing you.
Remember, I’m taking this in the most literal sense possible, which is something that many writing advice dispensers fail to do. Think about the other mediums and what they are at their core. Video games are displayed images on a monitor that you play around with (Except for text adventure games, but I’m too lazy to count them), movies are a sequence of images that play in order to present something happening, and paintings are just that. One massive picture.
Books on the other hand are very different in their core. Books are literally words pasted on a sequence of pages to present a story. Perhaps if you’re one of the brighter members of the audience, you’re able to note the difference.
*Psst* Lean in closer, let me tell you a secret. Books are the rare mediums that don’t have anything visual at their core level.
Sure, sure, you could try getting all philosophical on me. You could say things like ‘Whoa, man, words can create an image in you mind, man, don’t underestimate the power of imagination.’ or God forbid that you might say something along the lines of ‘Huh? Can’t you technically see words just like you can see an image?’ And yes, my friends, we should never underestimate the power of imagination and words can indeed be seen just like images.
But words are not images. Plain and simple.
The very act of expressing
anything in text is the epitome of telling something to somebody rather than showing it to them. Which is why there is a core flaw in dispensing the Show don’t Tell advice without giving proper context.
No, I’m not saying that this piece of writing advice is ineffectual at its core. No, I’m not saying that the people who just blurted this out to you are a bunch of evil monsters. I just
think that there is some tweaking to be done when we hand this advice out in the world of novels. I promise, it won’t be anything complex, in fact, the only problem I have with this is semantic in nature.
Rather than saying Show don’t Tell, we should say: Describe don’t Type
Perhaps you’ve just recoiled while gazing at your computer monitor. Maybe you think that I’m just some pretentious idiot that has a vendetta for common writing advice. A change in wording, you say? What difference could something so mundane possibly make? I’ll be glad to tell you that it makes a world of difference. Allow me to elaborate.
As we have covered earlier in this section, it is physically, philosophically, mentally, and virtually impossible to ‘Show’ something with words. The closest we can get is to represent something, but that isn’t showing. But when people actually dispense the Show don’t Tell advice, what they actually want you to do is to describe what is happening rather than just typing it down. And description is something that writers can totally do. What do I mean by this? How about another example.
Situation: Edgar is furious at the fact that Johnny stole his favorite stuffed animal at the daycare. Now his parents will never buy him another toy ever again.
Descrition #1: Edgar was really angry. Johnny took Mr. Snuffikins and tore off his ears and legs one by one. Edgar wanted to cry when this happened, and this was because Edgar was really sad too.
Description #2: Edgar’s fists started to tremble and his teeth started grinding against one another. Johnny snatched Mr. Snuffikins while he was taking a nap and with his prying fingers he had torn open the innocent stuffed rabbit. Tossing fluff over the classroom as though he’d vanquished a fearsome foe, Johnny paraded across throughout the class with Mr. Snuffikin’s corpse. Tears began to well up along Edgar’s eyes. Each torn limb from the stuffed animal was a memory that had been ripped to pieces. His eyes reddened at the knowledge that these were memories he would never have again.
I think it should be obvious which one of these paragraphs is able to provide a more concise, and detailed image of the event in our minds. As writers, it is our responsibility to be aware of the limitations of our medium. If we know the limitations of our medium, we’ll be able to turn those into the strengths of our literary works.
We have the advantage of the reader’s imagination filling in all of the gaps that we left behind in that paragraph. What do the boys dress like? Where are they? What brand of toy was Mr. Snuffikins? All of these questions and more are left for the reader to decide. And this is something that no other form of entertainment has to its advantage. The world of the game developer, director, and painter has a very concrete vision of what it should look like. But the world of a writer is much more abstract, leaving space for all manner of interpretations and questions waiting to be answered.
As always, this has been the QuestingAuthor. Keep writing, my friends.